Thursday, 7 May 2015

The political parties obfuscate on the EU

Tony Blair was undoubtedly the most pro-Europe prime minister since Edward Heath and he was keen for Britain to join the Euro. However, he was faced with one major hurdle - obtaining a yes vote in a referendum. As a smokescreen his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, devised five economic tests which had to be passed before joining the Euro could be agreed. This allowed the Government a face saving formula, and an answer to euro-enthusiast critics seeking early entry. There is no doubt that Blair had hoped to soften up the electorate to vote yes, but unfortunately for him the opinion polls stubbornly and consistently showed a clear majority against joining. The EU continued to widen its membership – in 1995 Austria, Finland and Sweden joined bringing the total of member states to fifteen.

The Tories responded to their 1997 defeat by the election of William Hague as leader. Hague was slightly to the right of Major as well as more euro-sceptic and he moved the Party’s position on the Euro from 'wait and see' to 'not just yet'. His outlook on this epitomised the confusion and lack of logic that continues to characterise the Conservative Party. His decision to rule out Euro-membership 'for the duration of the next parliament' was widely seen as inconsistent. He failed to satisfactorily explain why membership could not be ruled out in principle. The answer, of course, was that he still thought it necessary to appease the high placed but diminishing number of Tory europhiles and thus supposedly maintain party unity. His declared objective of 'being in Europe, but not ruled by Europe' was clearly unrealistic since it was clearly at odds with the leaders of Germany, France and many other EU countries who were all strong advocates of greater integration. The result of all this confusion was that, in the 2001 general election, Hague was defeated as soundly as Major had been, despite giving a high profile to his dubious promise to 'save the pound'.

Hague was in turn replaced by Iain Duncan-Smith, who until his election as leader, was considered to be on the right of the Party and was one of the parliamentary rebels against the Maastricht Treaty. However, after becoming leader he rubber-stamped just about every platitude of the Tory liberals, although to his credit he did at least make clear his opposition to joining the Euro on principle. The lack of any discernible leadership qualities resulted in Duncan-Smith being ditched by Tory MPs towards the end of 2003, and replaced by Michael Howard. Predictably, the new leader, although supposedly having a reputation for being right wing, immediately declared that he wanted to lead the Party from the centre, a policy position virtually indistinguishable from that of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Howard quickly informed a European audience that he wanted better relations with the EU, but at least he maintained his predecessor’s opposition to the Euro and greater EU integration. In the European elections of 2004 he went further by listing matters, such as fisheries policy, which would be repatriated to the British government. However, he failed to provide a credible explanation as to what would happen in the almost certain event that other Europeans countries would resist such demands. During the 2005 general election there was a covert informal agreement by all the major political parties not to raise the issue of Europe. David Cameron, the current Conservative leader, was elected in late 2005, and declared during his campaign for the leadership that he would pull the Conservatives out of the federalist European People's Parties group. He delivered this commitment after the European Parliament election of 2009.

No comments:

Post a Comment